City News

Busy families, homeless Salemites disappointed by library cuts

About a dozen people lined up outside the Salem Public Library Sunday, waiting for the doors to open at noon. They included several families with children, adults who filed in to browse the shelves, and musicians in festive sweaters carrying ukuleles for a scheduled jam session.

Racheal Anderson returned a stack of books before heading to browse the shelves. The Salem resident said she was sad when she learned the library would soon close on Sundays. She typically spends Saturdays running errands and reserves Sundays for the library.

“I love libraries – who doesn’t? I know it’s the lack of staffing and funding,” she said.

The city and department cut hours due to a lack of staffing and anticipated budget cuts in the next few years, according to leadership. The library has nine vacant positions, an increase of three since August, which staff say have left them scrambling to cover all their duties. 

The library’s main branch will close on Sundays and will cut evening hours during the week, starting Jan. 2. It will close two hours earlier, at 6 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday and an hour earlier, at 5 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays.

Hours will be cut even more at the West Salem Branch, which will soon only be open two days a week, from 1 – 6 p.m. on Tuesdays and noon to 5 p.m. on Saturdays.

Interim City Librarian Bridget Esqueda told Salem city councilors during a Dec. 11 meeting that the decision was based on usage and checkout data.

Tuesdays through Saturdays were the busiest days of the week at the main branch, and Tuesdays and Saturdays were the most commonly-used days at the West Salem Branch.

“Staff is tired, we’re feeling burnt out and this is why we had to make the changes to conserve the most valuable resource we have at the library, which is staff,” Esqueda said, and to prepare for what lies ahead. 

“No librarian wants to cut hours, we want to expand libraries if we could,” she said.

A graph showing the most common times and days people use the main branch of the public library, with darker red showing more popular times. The top horizontal line is Sundays and the bottom line is Saturdays. (Courtesy/ City of Salem)
A graph showing the most common times and days people use west Salem branch of the public library, with darker red showing more popular times. The top horizontal line is Sundays and the bottom line is Saturdays.(Courtesy/ City of Salem)

The decision brought strong reactions from the community, including hundreds of comments on the library’s Dec. 9 Facebook announcement of the cuts and under a link to Salem Reporter’s article on the local Reddit page.

Some said Sundays were the only days they could make it to the library as working parents, or the days they looked forward to free community concerts at Loucks Auditorium. 

Jacque Johnson sat in a chair upstairs Sunday as her two children browsed the shelves. She said she works during the week, and Saturdays are often full with sports and other activities.

“I was bummed,” she said of the planned closure. “It’s what we do together after church on Sunday.”

Beyond checkouts, others pointed to the library as an important source for accessing the internet and shelter from the cold.

“As a homeless guy this is gonna be really hard and make me go back to the shelter to keep warm and charge phone in the evening – try to avoid the shelter as much as I can as I don’t feel safe – Sundays I’m gonna be completely screwed,” a Reddit user commented.

Scheduled Sunday meetings and events beyond December have been canceled, including a local atheist group which has met Sunday afternoons for several years, and can’t afford to rent a space elsewhere. Organizer Laurel Hines told Salem Reporter the group will likely move to Saturdays to keep using the library.

Cuts at the library were a central discussion point for city leaders as they put forward a payroll tax intended to address a city budget deficit earlier this year. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the tax on Nov. 7. 

Some said they wanted libraries prioritized above other city services, with many commenters asking for police cuts. The comments are in contrast to City Manager Keith Stahley’s plan to prioritize police and fire services while seeking deep cuts to the city’s library and parks.

Others agreed the library was the best place to cut  after the failure of the payroll tax.

“Maintaining library operation as-is would no doubt require curtailing other equally or more important city functions,” said Alex Benenson in an email to Salem Reporter. “Of course I’m unhappy that the library hours will be cut, but I’m a lot more unhappy about how we ended up in this budget mess in the first place. City government needs to work harder and get more creative about increasing revenue.” 

The library’s budget hasn’t been cut yet, but the city and department opted not to fill the majority of vacancies in preparation for cuts during the next budget cycle. The city plans to fill the City Librarian position and a supervisor position that will become available soon due to a retirement.

During last week’s council meeting, councilors approved a plan for a revenue task force to seek ways to add money to the city’s general funds and prevent cuts for services like the library, parks, police and fire.

Applications to join the task force are due Friday, Jan. 4. For more information and to apply see the city website

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-575-1251.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.